THEME S1 | Social and Psychological Understandings of the Good Life

At the heart of any form of prosperity lie the desires, aspirations, needs and capabilities of ordinary people. Understanding these needs and aspirations is vital. Theme S1 examines the contested and situated nature of our visions of the good life and explores the role of materialism in delivering (and hindering) a sense of prosperity. We explore how different understandings of social justice and fairness enter our narratives of the good life. We also look at how our aspirations for prosperity and sustainability are negotiated in different contexts and circumstances. Using both social research and psychological experiments, we explore the idea that people could have ‘more fun with less stuff’. Browse through updates from this theme below. Read on for detailed information about the work programme.

Research Updates


CC.0 :: Cristian Newman /

S1.1 :: Situated and contested understandings of the good life

Visions of the good life and our pursuit of prosperity are shaped by material circumstances and situated within social and physical environments. Significant tensions between different visions are to be expected, particularly in respect of the priorities attached to social justice, welfare and environmental goods and values. This project focuses on the diversity of visions of what it means to live well within neighbourhoods where social inequalities and distinctions are already apparent and also explores how aspirations may vary along intergenerational and gender lines. We will explore how and in what form concepts of social and environmental justice enter ordinary people’s moral accounts of the good life and how the ‘sustainable prosperity’ of particular places may be understood very differently by different residents. We will map these divergent accounts and identify points of consensus and common ground. Our approach will involve mixed method qualitative research in three case study sites, each selected to include a varied community in different geographical locations.

S1.2 :: More fun; less stuff? Exploring the potential to live better and more sustainably

This project explores critically the potential for people to have ‘more fun with less stuff’: to live better and more fulfilling lives, with lower material and environmental impact. Psychological research indicates that an excessive focus on acquiring material goods is associated with lower individual wellbeing while psychological well-being is enhanced by activities that involve skill, empathy and concentration in lieu of high material inputs. This viewpoint has some resonance with more sociological definitions of ‘sustainable’ or ‘serious’ leisure which require lower levels of resource and may provide intrinsic personal rewards. In short, the suggestion is that there is a set of activities which are less materially intensive and simultaneously enhance personal wellbeing.

Project S1.2 has two related strands. The first is taking an experimental psychology approach to test the relationship between psychic satisfaction and (more or less) materialistic behaviours. This includes an intervention study to explore the potential for mindfulness to reduce pursuit of short-term gratification and increase engagement in more fulfilling (and less damaging) activities. The second strand is adopting an ethnographic approach to explore the possibility for ‘more fun, with less stuff’ for those living on constrained incomes, aiming to build a rich understanding of the meaning of material goods and the everyday experience of leisure in their lives. To date much of the research on the benefits of less materialistic lifestyles has been based on the views and experiences of comparatively wealthy individuals with little attention paid to the opportunity for, or meaning of, less materialistic lives for those in the poorest communities. In addition, critiques of ‘materialist’ orientations often elide the huge personal and social significance which surround the acquisition, use and ownership of specific goods and the extent to which ownership of a suite of goods (computers for example) is considered essential for full participation in society.

S1.3 :: Shifting visions of ‘the good life’ through early motherhood

Individuals’ visions of and commitment to ‘the good life’ are likely to change over time, particularly as they move through significant life-course transitions. The transition to motherhood is an extended process involving a series of shifts both in everyday practice and in women’s visions of the lifestyle they want and are able to have. Project S1.3 explores how visions of the good life develop and change through the early years of motherhood. These visions vary between individuals but are strongly informed by current ideologies of motherhood and experiences of gendered social roles. Existing work indicates that care for infants in early motherhood may stimulate an ethic of care and sense of connection to future generations, but the experience of ‘time squeeze’ associated with the practicalities of child care often militates against engagement in sustainable practices. In addition, commodities play a central role in the construction of ‘appropriate’ mothers and ‘proper’ childhoods, potentially challenging aspirations for less materialistic lifestyles. This project builds on longitudinal qualitative work conducted as part of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG), gaining added value by conducting a new analysis of some of the existing data and continuing the longitudinal work with a subset of mothers who have already been interviewed on three occasions. We provide a pioneering map of how visions of the good life shift and are tempered by varying experiences and considerations of ‘reality’ from first pregnancy through to when the eldest child is around 8. In-depth interviews are be conducted with a sample of 15 mothers – the first around the time their first child starts school and the second three years later.

S1.4 :: Children and Youth in Cities—Lifestyle Evaluations and Sustainability (CYCLES)

Cities are youthful places. By 2050, seven out of ten young people will live in an urbanising area. Cities are also centres of consumption. Urban areas cover two percent of the world’s land area, but they are sites of 70 percent of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding the lifestyles and aspirations of young people living in cities motivates the CYCLES project, a study of the lives of young urban citizens aged between 12 and 24 years living in very different cities and contexts. Our aim in CYCLES is to identify and share young urban experiences and ideas for living well within environmental limits. For updates and details, please see the CYCLES project page.


CYCLES. A Touring Exhibition

November 7, 2018

In each city small groups of young people, aged from 12–24, took photos or drew pictures to illustrate ‘a day in our lives’ and then discussed their images with us, focusing on what they valued and what they would like to change. A CYCLES photo exhibition is on show at The Foundry, in Vauxhall, London (until January 2019). These are their images. This is their story.

September 19, 2018

Research suggests that the excessive focus on the acquisition of material goods promoted by our consumer society may be detrimental to well-being. Current Western lifestyles, which promote unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, therefore risk failing to bring citizens the happiness they seek.

Policy Challenges around Sustainable Lifestyles

April 27, 2018

Tim Jackson’s chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Psychology and Economic Behaviour has been updated for the second edition of the international, multi-disciplinary and partly new collection, edited by Alan Lewis. It summarises the challenge inherent in recent policy debates about sustainable consumption, focusing in particular on what might be involved in negotiating the kinds of lifestyle changes that are implied by the radical reductions in carbon emissions that are required to mitigate climate change.

November 8, 2017

In their new paper for the Journal of Consumer Ethics, Kate Burningham and Sue Venn suggest there is a need for greater attention to the gender and relational dimensions of environmentally sustainable practice, and for promotion of holistic discourses of sustainable consumption which align sustainable living with the maintenance of family life.

October 19, 2017

The idea that lifecourse transitions might offer ‘moments of change’ in which to encourage more sustainable consumption is popular, yet insights from the sociological literature on lifecourse transitions have rarely been brought to bear on this assumption. This paper focuses on two distinct lifecourse transitions – becoming a mother and retirement – and through qualitative longitudinal research evaluates the assumption that such periods provide opportunities for movement to more sustainable consumption.

September 19, 2017

How do young people see the world? What are their hopes and aspirations for the future? What does the ‘good life’ mean for them in an age of environmental and social limits? These are some of the questions that motivate the CYCLES project which we are launching with this report.

July 13, 2017

This report presents a summary of a workshop we held in Stoke-on-Trent in May of this year. The emphasis in the workshop was to encourage discussions around identifying existing assets within the city, and to consider what would make Stoke-on-Trent a better place to live.

Prosperity Without Growth — Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow (Book Cover, 2017)

April 27, 2017

The publication of Prosperity without Growth was a landmark in the sustainability debate. This substantially revised and re-written edition updates its arguments and considerably expands upon them. Tim Jackson demonstrates that building a ‘post-growth’ economy is not Utopia – it’s a precise, definable and meaningful task. It’s about taking simple steps towards an economics fit for purpose.

October 9, 2016

This paper explores the ramifications of the combined crises now faced by the prevailing growth-based model of economics. In paying a particular attention to the nature of enterprise, the quality of work, the structure of investment and the role of money, the paper develops the conceptual basis for social innovation in each of these areas, and provides empirical examples of such innovations.

September 29, 2016

Understanding sustainable prosperity is an essential but complex task. It implies an ongoing multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research agenda. This working paper sets out the dimensions of this task. In doing so it also establishes the foundations for the research of the ESRC-funded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP).

Deputy Director
CUSP Director
Research Fellow
Research Fellow
PhD Candidate
PhD Candidate
PhD Candidate
Present Minds Ltd
Brand Legacy
Agulhas: Open Knowledge
Feral State
University College London
Brand Legacy
Agulhas: Open Knowledge